Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Myth and Majesty: The Humanistic Tradition
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Three Graces, ca. 1625-28
Oil on panel, 39.9 x 39.9 cm
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, inv. DPG264

Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

In a landscape setting distinguished by a circular colonnaded temple in the distance at left, three women are linked in a lithe and spontaneous dance. The figure at left holds a tambourine in her upraised left hand, providing rhythm for the dance. Her right arm is grasped by the figure at the center, whose gracefully twisted pose is accentuated by the weightless undulations of the veil encircling her arm and thighs. The central figure's right hand just brushes the hip of the third figure, who gently and affectionately rests her own right hand on her companion's shoulder.

The three graces—Aglaia (Radiance), Euphrosyne (Joy), and Thalia (Blossom)— were the daughters of Zeus and the sea nymph Eurynome; they are often depicted as the companions of Venus. The Graces had the capability to bestow on mortals wisdom, pleasure, joy, kindness, and happiness; as the goddesses of physical grace and beauty, they imparted to women especially those enchanting qualities that encouraged love and pleasure. They are shown naked because they were without deceit; frequently, the central figure has her back turned while her companions face the viewer, a reference to the philosophy that whatever one gives freely is returned twofold (on classical interpretations of the Three Graces, see Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance [New York and London, 1968], pp. 26-35). The dancing Graces were introduced by Horace as the joyous companions of Venus in his description of the transition from winter to spring (Odes, 1.4, 6-7); Botticelli's Primavera elegantly represents the Graces in this context (c. 1478; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).

Rubens painted or drew the Three Graces on several occasions, undoubtedly attracted to the Stoic philosophy of liberality imputed to the theme as much as the opportunity it presented to depict beautiful nude women from a variety of angles. In addition to a grisaille oil sketch now in the Galleria Palatina, Florence, there are finished compositions depicting the Graces supporting a flower basket (c. 1620-24; Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste,Vienna) and as guardians supervising the education of the young Marie de Médicis (c. 1621-25; Musée du Louvre, Paris, inv. 1771). The most deservedly famous of Rubens's depictions of the Graces is his surpassingly voluptuous, life-sized version of the theme in the Museo del Prado, Madrid.

On a more modest scale, the Dulwich sketch displays the same loving touch in the fluent delineation of the generous, supple curves of the women's bodies. Equally evident is Rubens's great skill and understanding of the grisaille technique, revealed in the subtle contrast between milky gray and warm brown tones, and in his sensitive use of the imprimatura—especially in the figure on the right—to create the middle tones of the composition.

No work based on this sketch survives, and its final function is not known. The absence of color suggests that it might have been a design for a print (compare The Road to Calvary (Christ Carrying the Cross), Last Supper, and The Elevation of the Cross), although the technique is rather sketchier than in other oil sketches used as engraver's models. Alternatively, The Three Graces might have been made as a design for a piece of silver, like Rubens's great modello for a silver basin depicting the Birth of Venus (The National Gallery, London, inv. NG 1195), although the landscape setting here creates a greater impression of spatial recession than would be appropriate for such a context. At an unknown date, an irregular piece at the upper portion of the panel (above the heads of the Graces) was cut away and replaced by another hand with a piece of wood prepared with a brown, rather than gray, imprimatura.

Julius Held dated the Dulwich sketch to about 1625-28, which seems most plausible stylistically. Justus Müller Hofstede (1965) connected The Three Graces to a drawing in a private collection, London, and dated both works to about 1631-32. Michael Jaffé (1989) dated the oil sketch even later, to about 1636, the same period as Rubens's paintings for the Torre de la Parada (compare Aurora and Cephalus, Clytie Grieving, The Abduction of Dejanira by Nessus, and Nereid and Triton).

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